The Social Investment Stipend: Care, Service, and Education

Just as those volunteers I mentioned in my previous post devoted their time and energy toward making their communities a little bit more loving, I believe it is incumbent on us to use the economic abundance of the AI age to foster these same values and encourage this same kind of activity.

To do this, I propose that we explore the creation not of a universal basic income (UBI) but of what I call a social investment stipend. The stipend would be a decent government salary given to those who invest their time and energy in those activities that promote a kind, compassionate, and creative society. These would include three broad categories: care work, community service, and education.

These would form the pillars of a new social contract, one that valued and rewarded socially beneficial activities in the same way we currently reward economically productive activities. The stipend would not substitute for a social safety net—the traditional welfare, healthcare, or unemployment benefits to meet basic needs—but would offer a respectable income to those who choose to invest energy in these socially productive activities. Today, social status is still largely tied to income and career advancement. Endowing these professions with respect will require paying them a respectable salary and offering the opportunity for advancement like a normal career. If executed well, the social investment stipend would nudge our culture in a more compassionate direction. It would put the economic bounty of AI to work in building a better society, rather than just numbing the pain of AI-induced job losses.

Each of the three recognized categories—care, service, and education—would encompass a wide range of activities, with different levels of compensation for full- and part-time participation. Care work could include parenting of young children, attending to an aging parent, assisting a friend or family member dealing with illness, or helping someone with mental or physical disabilities live life to the fullest. This category would create a veritable army of people—loved ones, friends, or even strangers—who could assist those in need, offering them what my entrepreneur friend’s touchscreen device for the elderly never could: human warmth.

Service work would be similarly broadly defined, encompassing much of the current work of nonprofit groups as well as the kinds of volunteers I saw in Taiwan. Tasks could include performing environmental remediation, leading afterschool programs, guiding tours at national parks, or collecting oral histories from elders in our communities. Participants in these programs would register with an established group and commit to a certain number of hours of service work to meet the requirements of the stipend.

Finally, education could range from professional training for the jobs of the AI age to taking classes that could transform a hobby into a career. Some recipients of the stipend will use that financial freedom to pursue a degree in machine learning and use it to find a high-paying job. Others will use that same freedom to take acting classes or study digital marketing.

Bear in mind that requiring participation in one of the above activities is not something designed to dictate the daily activities of each person receiving the stipend. That is, the beauty of human beings lies in our diversity, the way we each bring different backgrounds, skills, interests, and eccentricities. I don’t seek to smother that diversity with a command-and-control system of redistribution that rewards only a narrow range of socially approved activities.

But by requiring some social contribution in order to receive the stipend, we would foster a far different ideology than the laissez-faire individualism of a universal basic income. Providing a stipend in exchange for participation in prosocial activities reinforces a clear message: It took efforts from people all across society to help us reach this point of economic abundance. We are now collectively using that abundance to recommit ourselves to one another, reinforcing the bonds of compassion and love that make us human.

Looking across all the activities above, I believe there will be a wide enough range of choices to offer something suitable to all workers who have been displaced by AI. The more people- oriented may opt for care work, the more ambitious can enroll in job-training programs, and those inspired by a social cause may take up service or advocacy jobs.

In an age in which intelligent machines have supplanted us as the cogs and gears in the engine of our economy, I hope that we will value all of these pursuits—care, service, and personal cultivation—as part of our collective social project of building a more human society.

Posted by Dr. Kai-Fu Lee on May 30, 2019 in All Posts AI and You

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